Revelations that federal authorities have been collaborating to arrest and deport unauthorized immigrants who show up at interviews to seek legal residency drew a swift rebuke Tuesday from Democratic leaders and praise from advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
“Horrendous,” said US Representative Michael Capuano, who wrote to Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, on Tuesday to express his concerns about the practice, which was detailed in a Globe article. “These are exactly the kinds of policies we need to stop.”
The Globe reported Tuesday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with enforcing immigration laws, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes residency applications, have been working together to arrange interviews at government offices for immigrants, who were arrested and in some cases deported.
The interviews were scheduled at ICE’s convenience and spread out to minimize media scrutiny. The immigrants typically had final deportation orders against them but were trying to gain legal status through their marriages to American citizens.
“Separating families, breaking the hearts of parents, and terrorizing children cannot be the goal of any American administration,” Capuano wrote to Nielsen.
US Representative Seth Moulton said Congress should conduct hearings that would hold the officials involved in the practice responsible.
“It is the opposite of a government you can trust,” Moulton said. “And Americans deserve elected officials and government agents who they can trust.”
The practice was detailed in e-mails disclosed in court documents filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and lawyers for WilmerHale, who are representing five immigrants and their spouses in a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE.
ACLU lawyers described the interviews as a “trap” to bring the immigrants to government offices under false pretenses.
John Mohan, a spokesman for ICE, said allegations that the coordination between the two agencies was inappropriate were “unfounded.”
“This routine coordination within the Department of Homeland Security, not unlike the cooperative efforts we maintain with many other federal partners, is lawful and legitimate in the work we do to uphold our nation’s immigration laws,” Mohan said, calling the work with USCIS “critical.”
USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said that when agency officers “encounter an individual with an outstanding administrative or criminal want or warrant or removal order, they will notify the appropriate law enforcement agency but has no role in issuing warrants or removal orders.”
“USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis,” Bars said.
But Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging Capuano in the Democratic primary race for the Seventh Congressional District and has called for ICE to be abolished, said the e-mails reveal that “ICE is fundamentally broken.”
“The intentional targeting of immigrants seeking legal status creates toxic fear and results in trauma for members of the immigrant community,” Pressley said in a statement. “We are at a watershed moment in terms of our nation’s immigration policy.”
State Representative Geoff Diehl, one of three Republicans running against Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has also called for defunding ICE, defended the practice, saying the rhetoric against ICE has made it more difficult for agents to do their job. He blamed that rhetoric for the recent threat by a Cambridge man who was arrested by the FBI for offering $500 on social media to anyone who killed an ICE agent.
“By all indications, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has properly followed procedure and is doing their job, despite efforts to continually undermine their mission,” Diehl said in a statement.
Governor Charlie Baker did not directly address the revelations but said the agency should target immigrants charged with violent crimes.
“Governor Baker believes the focus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be on dangerous criminals and has filed legislation to continue enforcing longstanding policies enacted during the Obama administration to detain violent and dangerous criminals,” a spokesman said in an e-mail.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, said the Obama administration prevented collaboration between ICE and USCIS, a policy that had dangerous implications.
She cited a December 2015 incident in which a USCIS field office director in San Bernardino, Calif., refused to let federal agents into a government office to apprehend a man believed to have supplied the firearms used in a deadly terrorist attack the day before. The man was in the building for a scheduled visit with USCIS officials.
“This separation of the missions was taken to an extreme before, and I think the Trump administration is bringing it back to an appropriate level of cooperation,” Vaughan said. “This is good law enforcement.”
Under Obama, immigrants with final deportation orders were also at risk of arrest if they appeared at government offices for scheduled meetings, said Sarah Pierce, an immigration attorney and policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that analyzes migration and refugee policies worldwide.
“This is not a new practice,” Pierce said.
But under Trump, USCIS, which was established in 2003, has become a more muscular enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, Pierce said.
In February, the agency changed its mission statement to “secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information” to an agency that “administers the nation’s lawful immigration system.”
“They’re no longer focused on customer service,” Pierce said. “They’re much more focused on keeping out individuals who don’t deserve to come, as they deem it.”
That shift will discourage immigrants from seeking services they may qualify for and limit their cooperation with law enforcement, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston.
“It’s reprehensible,” he said. “When people are coming forward for assistance from the government, the government is essentially lying in wait for them.”